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Lydia Ernestine Becker (1827 - 1890)


portrait From Blackburn, H. 1902, Women's suffrage.

Biographical notes

Lydia Ernestine Becker is now better known for her pioneering work in the field of women's suffrage than as a natural scientist. She was very clearly a remarkable and practical woman, traits perhaps fostered in part by her position as the eldest of the 15 children of an industrial chemist. In her lifetime she upset influential figures of the establishment but, no doubt, much of her notoriety stemmed from strongly held beliefs that women were intellectually equal to men and as such deserved the same opportunities. This was a deeply unpopular idea at the time and her campagning for women's enfranchisement had to wait half a century before fruition.

As a naturalist she came to notice as a gold medal winner in the Royal Horticultural Society's 1864 Botanical Competition. Her practical nature is attested to by the fact that she devised and constructed her own flower press for this enterprise; a device which she considered was better for preserving the natural colouration of plants than the conventional systems in use. As a long-time member of the BAAS she was not only very active in using it to promote her views on education and women's rights, but also a keen participant in its academic scientific debates.


1827 Cooper Street, Manchester
1834 (by) Altham, Accrington
1837 (approx) Reddish, Lancs.
1844 Thuringia, Germany
1845 Reddish, Lancs.
1850 Altham, Accrington
1865 10 Grove Street, Ardwick, Manchester
1877 155 Shrewsbury Street, Manchester



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1827 February 24: Birth 1827 November 20: St James', Altham, Lancs., register
Records the baptism of Lydia Ernestine, daughter of Hannibal Leigh and Mary Becker, merchant, of Foxdenton Hall. It adds that she was born on February 24 of that year.
1843: Father bankrupt ¹1843 June 24: Perry's Bankrupt Gazette
... Hannibal Leigh Becker and John Leigh Becker, Manchester, co. Lancaster, and of Reddish-mills, same co. calico printers, dlrs. ch. and copartners, trading under the firm of Becker, Brothers, and Compant; surren. 4th July, 2d Aug. one pr. Court, Manchester - Official assignee, Hobson - Sols. Messrs. Baxter, Lincoln's inn-fields, and Sale and Warrington, Manchester

1844: Germany Lydia spent an extended period of time at the hydropathic clinic in Elgersburg run by her father's cousin, Dr Hermann Piutti. She returned late the following year. The trip was intended to improve her general health, which was regarded as poor, and it is clear that during this time she became proficient in the German language.
1863: Charles Darwin Lydia exchanged several letters with Charles Darwin regarding a bi-sexual form of Silene dioica that she had found at Altham. She sent him seed.
(Darwin Correspondence Project)
1864 : BAAS The records of the British Association for the Advancement of Science show that Lydia was elected a member in 1864. At this time it was one of the few scientific societies which admitted women to membership. She attended all subsequent meetings of this society up to 1889 (Parker, J. E. 2001. Lydia Becker's 'school for science': a challenge to domesticity, Women's History Review, 10:4, 629-650.)
1864 January: Publication Botany for Novices
This slim, and financially unsuccessful publication was intended to have a companion volume on astronomy but it never progressed beyond a manuscript. She sent a copy to Darwin (see above link).
Internet Archive
1865 : RHS Botanical Competition A Silver Medal for best collection of plants from Lancashire and a Gold Medal for one of the best collections overall, was awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society to "Miss Lydia E. Becker, Altham, Accrington."
1867 January 30: Manchester Ladies' Literary Society ¹1867 February 1: Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser.
MANCHESTER LADIES' LITERARY SOCIETY. - The first monthly meeting of this society was held on Wednesday afternoon, at the Royal Institution, Mosley-street. After a short address from the President, a paper was read on the "Movements and habits of climbing plants," communicated by Charles Darwin, Esq., F.R.S., &c., which excited much interest. A note was also read from Professor Babington, of Cambridge, expressing satisfaction at the establishment of the society, and wishing it success.
Lydia Becker was the founder and first President of this organisation.
1874: BAAS - Belfast ¹1874 August 25: London Daily News
THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION AT BELFAST ... In Belfast, where educational provisions are known to be numerous and of the highest quality, and where the education of women is elevated into a prominent position, nothing could have been more attractive than the questions discussed, and the authors were no others than Miss Lydia Becker and Miss Beedy, prominent advocates of the Women's Suffrage Movement, and Mrs Gray, whose name is known in connection with educational movements in London. ...

Miss Becker, whos reception indicated how much the curiosity of the audience was centered in her, was, as she invariably is, practical, athough there was a marked contrast between Mrs Grey's rhetorical address and Miss Becker's description of the practical difficulties in enforcing the Elementary Education Act, even though it occupied but a few minutes of time, it was loudly applauded. Miss Becker, in fact, from her labours on the Manchester School Board, was able to speak with authority; and nothing is truer than such authority everywhere commands respect.
1884: BAAS - Montreal Lydia Becker attended the BAAS meeting in Montreal, sailing from Liverpool on the "Vancouver" on August 9.
¹1884 September 11: Glasgow Herald
THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION IN CANADA ... Mrs E.M. King arrived some time ago, and signified her willingness to enlighten the people of Montreal on the subject of dress reform; but the ladies of Montreal have not shown much enthusiasm to have their minds improved and their skirts divided, and King has been allowed to languish in obscurity. Miss Lydia Becker is somewhere in the ?? but she has not yet discovered herself to the general public. When the meetings begin her voice will doubtless be heard in Section 7.

This patronising attitude is rather alarming considering Lydia had been an active member of the BAAS for 20 years.

1884 September 16: Glasgow Herald
¹THE BRITISH ASSOCIATION IN CANADA ... The geologists were chiefly engaged with that fruitful topic of dissention - ice. But before the serious work of quarrelling began, a diversion was caused by Miss Lydia Becker's anxiety to know if the proposed gold medal in McGill University was to be competed for by male students only, a point on which she was much exercised. ...
1889: BAAS - Newcastle ¹1889 September 14: Freeman's Journal
...Mr F. Galton followed with some remarks on the palaeontological evidence for the transmission of acquired characters. He considered that the argument for the transmission of mutilations is hardly tenable.
Professor Flower, Professor Vines, Professor Ray Lankester, Mr G J Romanes, Professor Marshall Ward, Professor Herdman, and Miss Lydia Becker continued the discussion for and against these theories.
1890 July 18:
Death in Geneva
¹1890 July 19: Lancashire Evening Post
  DEATH OF MISS LYDIA BECKER. A telegram was received in Manchester, today, announcing the death of Miss Lydia Becker at Geneva, last evening, from diphtheria.

1 Transcription reproduced with kind permission of The British Newspaper Archive

Managed by Richard Middleton; last updated 2023 March 29